By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
Bob Huggins finally has his kind of team at West Virginia University.
When he arrived, the coach inherited a team recruited for John Beilein’s unique system of basketball, not his own. They ran patterned offenses, popped from the outside, played zone defense better than man and didn’t rebound very well.
Talented? Yes, they were.
And, to Huggins’ credit, he took them, working parts of his own system in with Beilein’s, developed a Huggins’ tough-guy attitude and fielded not only winning teams but one that cruised all the way to the Final Four.
That team was built on the many talents of Da’Sean Butler, whose reward for it was busting up his knee late in his final WVU game, costing himself an NBA career.
He’s back now, about to begin a different career as a graduate assistant for Huggins, and the style of play he is about to learn is Huggins’ style, which is tough, tough defense and attitude, run, run, run and play physical basketball.
It worked in Cincinnati well enough to get him to the Final Four and onto the doorstep of the College Basketball Hall of Fame, and now he is about to turn it loose at West Virginia, playing in the Big 12 Conference, a conference where that style might even be more successful than it would have been in the Big East.
“It’s a lot easier than last year because we have four guys back,” Huggins said, referring to four players who started often last season with Kevin Jones and Truck Bryant in Deniz Kilicli, Jabarie Hinds, Gary Browne and Keaton Miles.
It was a young team last year and, quite frankly, one Huggins didn’t really enjoy coaching because it wasn’t ready to be his kind of team.
“Last year there was just stuff going on everywhere; you couldn’t fix everything. This year our guys got so much better idea of what we want, of what’s expected of them. We can start to fine tune things better because you are not dealing with so much all at once,” he said.
Back with those four are three players who have showed huge offseason improvement and will play a large role in what Huggins tries to do. That would be center Kevin Noreen, forward Dominique Rutledge and Aaron Brown in the backcourt.
All of this would be enough to satisfy Huggins that he has a chance to be good, but there are also three players who transferred in who figure to be in the starting lineup and give the team its true persona.
The point guard will be Juwan Staten, a bubbly take-charge guy who led the Atlantic 10 in assists while a freshman at Dayton with 5.4 a game; Matt Humphrey, a shooting guard out of Boston College who averaged 10.4 points a game last year and in Huggins’ system figures to maybe double that; and long, lean Aaric Murray, a styling shot-blocker and rebounder who was on the verge of shattering all of LaSalle’s records in those areas before opting to try big-time basketball.
“Matt Humphrey will not be a problem. He spent a year at Oregon in one system and played in basically the Princeton stuff with John Beilein (style), so he’s got an idea how play,” Huggins said. “The first time I watched him play what impressed me more than anything was his understanding of how to play … and he can make shots.
“It’s kind of refreshing to see the ball go in sometimes. I haven’t seen that much.”
Murray’s problem is that he broke his hand last year and really didn’t get to do much last season while sitting out due to the transfer rule, so he looked a bit sloppy in the recent scrimmage, but Huggins believes he’ll play better as the season goes on and he gets into better game shape.
The big thing, though, is this is a team that will run, unlike the set offense team of a year ago.
“We can score in transition this year, which we couldn’t do. If we were 2 on 1, there was just as good a chance we’d throw it away as get a shot,” Huggins said.
Huggins envisions a team similar to his great teams in Cincinnati.
“We’re not as athletic as they were. On the perimeter we are, but we are not nearly as athletic on the front line,” he said. “I want to do some of that stuff, but I think we’ll have to back it up some. We won’t be able to cover as much ground as we covered. We just don’t have the foot speed we had.
“What I’m hoping is … opposing coaches would tell me when I was at Cincinnati that when I didn’t have a Kenyon (Martin), I didn’t have a (Nick) Van Exel or I didn’t have a (Danny) Fortson is we were harder to guard. You couldn’t key so much on certain guys, so we were harder to guard. You didn’t know where the points were coming from.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.